Recently, here on the blog, we had a discussion about lots of interesting and creative ways to build raised beds. Thank you all for sharing your great ideas, lots of really cool ideas. You can see that post and add any additional ideas here. But . . . do you really need raised beds? Let’s chat about that shall we?
Why raised beds?
There are three primary reasons for building raised beds.
1. For things like vegetable gardening having a raised bed can be take some of the stress off or your back if you have a weak back. But of course, building a raised bed usually requires some work so it’s not something that you want to do if you don’t have to. But if it’s next to impossible for you to get down that low, or not good for you to kneel, then having somebody help you build a raised bed could be the best thing in the world for you.
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2. Poor soil! If you have really poor soil in your yard and plants just don’t grow all that well, building a raised bed allows you to fill that bed with rich soil that is loaded with organic matter. If you have really good soil in your raised bed that drains well you can water as needed and not be concerned about things getting too wet, or worse, staying wet for too long. When installing landscapes, and I’ve landscaped well over 500 homes in my career, I always raised the beds for these two reasons. In many cases the soil is poor, so I want nice soil to plant in so the landscape plants thrive. And secondly is the aesthetic appeal that a raised bed provides.
3. One of the primary reasons that we create raised beds when landscaping is because when the bed is raised you can do a better job of showing off the beautiful plants in the landscape. If you just mark out a bed around your house and plant the shrubs you lose the stair step effect of good landscaping. You should look at landscaping as a set of steps. From the street the first step is lawn, the second is the raised bed, the third the low growing shrubs in the very front of the landscape, the fourth the medium growing shrubs in the middle of the landscape planting and fifth being the taller shrubs in the back of the landscape.
The above photo is a stair stepped landscape planting in a raised bed. Notice that there is nothing around this bed to retain the soil. This is almost always how I build a raised bed for landscaping. I just taper the soil down to the lawn. Mowing around this bed with a riding lawn mower is a breeze, no trimming required. It’s less work, it’s less expensive and it’s still very attractive. And . . . and this is the big one, as the plants grow the bed is easily enlarged just a few inches at a time and no bricks or other retaining materials need to be moved.
Are raised beds always a good idea?
No they are not. I know that might come as a shock to a lot of folks, but raised beds are not always a good idea and sometimes they are a terrible idea. Why is that?
One of the things that we come to understand very quickly in the nursery business is that the during the winter, the earth is warm, the air is cold. The closer you can keep things to the earth, the warmer they area. We never put plants on pallets or any other raised area for the winter. We want the bottom of the containers touching the soil. It makes all the difference in the world.
In my nursery I actually have an under ground bunker that I dug out and I use it to store bare root plants during the winter. It’s not all that big, probably about 8′ long and 36″ wide and only 24″ to 30″ deep, but when I put things in there they do not freeze. I probably oughta show you that thing again huh?
So make a mental note of that. The earth is warm. The farther you get from the surface of the earth, the colder things are. And the drier they are!
During the winter dry is not a good thing.
That’s another thing you ought to know. During the winter plants need to be hydrated. That’s why they are always much better outside in a protected area than they are in a shed or a garage. Believe it or not, the air inside of a building is much drier than the air outside. And I’m talking about an Unheated Building. It’s still dry.
The closer to the earth the warmer plants are, and the more moist they are. They like that. It makes them happy.
Can a raised bed be too high?
Technically, a raised bed can be too high. It puts the plants at risk because they can dry out more easily and they will freeze harder, go through the freeze thaw cycle more often.
If these raised beds are too high why did I make them that high? The answer to that question is telling because it plays to what I’ve been teaching you here. Right behind the raised bed above is a container area that we created this year at the nursery. Because my soil drains well, please don’t over look what I just said, my soil drains really well, we dug out an area about 40′ wide and 70′ feet long. We removed about 8″ of soil so our small containers would be sitting 8″ below grade.
All of that excavation created quite a pile of dirt so I just round off the pile and turned it into a landscape planting. I had to do something with all of that soil! Given a choice I would not have made the bed that high.
Taking advantage of ground heat.
Don’t over look how much trouble I go to to take advantage of ground heat here in the nursery. All of our containers are below grade because I do not cover them for winter. But again, my soil drains, so I know they won’t be too wet. All of our containers sit on the ground, never up on a raised surface of any kind. I often buy plants during the winter that get shipped to me bare root, they go underground so they can’t freeze. I’ll get some photos of that bunker and show you.
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Questions, comments, what did I leave out? Post them below.
Jack Majcher says
Your knowledge and business acumen are very impressive. You are a great guy for all you share with people. After reading your “raised bed” post I think I understand why some of my raised beds are not producing well. Please keep up the good work. We need you! Good luck!
Jack Majcher, Altoona, PA
Thanks Jack, I appreciate that.
Nancy McBride says
I have raised beds that my son did for me so I would not have to use a tiller. I am 74 and this has been a success for me. Thanks for the advise I have been reading about. Nancy
Concerning raised beds. I do not recommend building them with concrete blocks! I did so and it seems the blocks heat up in the summer sun and draws the moisture out of the ground a lot quicker and watering is required more frequently
Hi Mike, we live in mushroom country and am told that mushroom manure from the local growers is fantastic for all plants and veggies… Any thoughts?
David Stephenson says
Having worked on a mushroom farm for a time I can say that without a doubt, the mushroom compost that is left after the shrooms are done growing is a fantastic additive for garden soil.
Mushrooms are grown on a bed of composted horse manure and hay that is cooked with live steam to kill all the bacteria. Mushroom spores are spread out on top of this bed, and when they begin to sprout, the entire bed is covered with peat moss mixed with ag lime to help keep it moist.
Once all the mushrooms are picked, the room is cooked again to call all remaining spores and the beds are emptied of all that great additive. Some growers bag the stuff and sell it, and others give it away for free.
One thing to keep in mind if you are going to the farm to pick it up….. if you have to drive around back where the fresh stuff is composting, the smell will be overpowering…..lol.
Mike, you do a GREAT job. You don’t need to run around “poor me….somebody fussed about….” You are fine, better than fine. We use your suggestions and they work. I have two long and narrow raised beds because that’s the way my husband wanted to use the wood and he thought I could reach across better. That’s fine with me and the plants like it, too. My two beds are 3 x about 16 feet each, placed side by side with about 3 feet bordering all around. My squashes and herbs handle the slopes down toward the garden just fine. This year I thought I’d try using ALL 4 seasons, studied up on it and began. Well, here in the N. Ga. mountains I learned there really ARE some critters prowling around at night. They ate up the leaf section I had started planting for the winter. I waited a couple of weeks and started more Kale plants again, same spot. Worked. I may have to plant the rest of it except Mother Nature is moving in tonight with sub freezing weather. Chicken here just might sit it out. But don’t worry. Your tips are great and I intend to keep using them. But with a back problem, I don’t have time to plant things to sell in pots to other people. They just need to get your site and get busy. It’s fun, too. The only change I’ve ever made is to dig up my basil, & transplant back to pots that line my driveways. We have a problem with sun up here in the mountains so we know where to find it for smaller plants. Crush and run driveways hold the heat! Have fun and keep it growing. And, keep this site up! MamaPat
We have had raised garden beds for thirty now 3ft high 4ft x 8 ft all the veggy’s come from there never had a problem and less weeds as well.
Jen of Hens says
Here in the desert SW – raised beds are about the last thing you want with very few exceptions (caliche under the soil, health concerns). Our intense heat and dry air pulls moisture from raised beds at an accelerated pace so you need more water, even if you mulch heavily. And because our soil has a lot of naturally occurring salts, which migrate to the high spots of a watered area, you’re basically growing your plants right where the salt wants to migrate.
Sunken or ground level beds work best here to retain water, protect from drying winds and avoid salt at the root zone.
I grind up my egg cartons in the food processor (after tearing into small pieces) with a little water.
I also use old water troughs that I have drilled holes into the bottom for my raised beds. I need back surgery and am putting it off for as long as I can and this helps me to a great extent.
Mike @ friends.
I have a little problem that perhaps you can help me with.
I have about 50 to 75 egg cartons (carboard ones) that I’d like to use as
mulch. First, is it good for the garden, do I put them in my mulch pile or
do I put them directly on my garden. and how do I mulch them up in
little pieces besides setting my two yrs old grandsons at them, my
lawn mower won’t do it because it isn’t a mulching one. Any suggestions
would be really appreciated.
Mike, keep up the good work.
Hi Mike. Good article. We have heavy red clay here. I was told nothing would grow in it except grass and trees. While it’s definitely not the optimal growing medium, I did manage to get a bumper crop from my garden using nothing more than water from my fish aquarium to supplement the red clay mound rows. I harvest bushels of tomatoes, enough peppers to freeze, eat fresh and give away, and enough cucumbers to make pints and pints of pickles and relishes-Not to mention all the salsa and tomato sauce I made from the combination. Now I am building raised beds for some growth and leaving others to grow in the ground itself. Mostly I am doing this for my own needs. I have a very bad back and I lost a lot of produce to spoiling because it was so difficult for me to harvest off the ground. The raised beds do exactly what you said….they look lovely, they save my back and they allow me to choose the growing medium. Thanks For all your hard work and help, Mike.
Thanks Mike for the aesthetic information on raised beds. I will make some flower beds utilizing that concept. Because of 100% clay soil, my two strawberry beds are raised to contain purchased top soil amended with compost. This is the third year I’ve enjoyed a bountiful harvest. This year the bird problem became intolerable. So I built removable frames with chick wire and completely boxed in the beds. End of bird problem.
Before next Spring I will also make a raised bed for my herbs. Most of the herbs grow well in the clay, so soil isn’t the problem. My back is ok so I don’t mind bending down to gather the herbs. Actually I didn’t know I had an herb garden problem. One day while busy in another part of the yard, I saw something move, and I focused on it. It was one of the neighborhood dogs that can’t read the city ordinance against roaming dogs. He not only roamed through my yard, he also marked the herb garden as his special property. Will two feet high be sufficient?
24″ high is plenty high enough for a raised bed. Really, 12″ is usually plenty high enough.
Barbara A. Pilkey says
Would love to see you on Facebook so I can add your posts to my Facebook Page (Enderby Community Garden)
Barbara, you can still add these posts to any facebook page. Just copy the url from the the address bar and post it to facebook.
I’m about to put together some raised beds for stock plants and to “grow on” some things. Our soil is in pretty good shape but it is loaded with a healthy stand of Bermuda grass. Any suggestions on combating this nemesis of mine.
Derrick, if it were me I’d spray the Bermuda with a non selective herbicide, wait three days, til the soil. Wait about a week and either spray again as needed or til again. If you don’t want to spray you can just til the soil, let it sit, til it again, let it sit for about 7 days, til it again. Just keep repeating this process. The roots will become dried out and will no longer grow. Then I’d mulch heavy with newspaper then mulch after planting.
Suzette Trimmer says
My raised beds are mainly composed of leaves that are collected over the season. I find the leaf mold and the heat generated from the leaf mold is an under estimated as much as it is unappreciated, It is Free it is loaded with free nutrients and the added insulation for the cold winters here in zone 6B go a long way. I have yet to read a single bad piece of advice that is offered and given out on this site for free. Everything offered here is of great value and I hope others are as grateful as I am. I have done the cuttings to produce so many plants that the would other wise would have cost us a fortune. And to inform all those whom read this great site another fabulous piece of advice I should offer is that all of our Tomato plants come from the compost. That is right from our compost. Because I recycle the plants into the compost when I plant the next seasons plants from compost I notice small tomato plants growing. I simply pluck them out once established and put into a small bed of tiny tomato plants. I wind up with abut 100 tomato plants and then plant where they are needed. And the best part is I never have to buy new plants. We have so many huge tomatoes from this practice that i have to learn how to can as a result. Just food for thought.
PATTI LAW-POGGI says
SUZETTE, …..BUT I THOUGHT YOU WEREN’T SUPPOSED TO PUT SPENT TOMATO PLANTS BACK INTO YOUR COMPOST BECAUSE IT’S OF THE NIGHTSHADE FAMILY. PLEASE ADVISE.
[email protected] says
Raised beds can really help a lot when you have soil challenges, or “light in all the wrong places” challenges, like someone mentioned above. A lot of gardeners think that they are limited to wood construction, but concrete blocks are a great alternative, They come in different colors to match your home or environment, they can be used to create different shapes, and they don’t rot like wood can. They can really had an attractive element to your landscape! It’s an easy do-it-yourself project. There are tips and instructions here: http://info.basalite.com/blog/bid/182674/Tips-for-Building-a-Concrete-Planter-Box-for-Your-Garden-Landscape
Thanks, Mike, for all of the great blog posts!
Barry Hill Australia says
I belong to a community garden, we have 27 plots 8 are raised mainly for people with disability’s, we have found the raised ones over summer required less watering and had bigger crops, we are now raising all plots but are dividing them with a path mainly so people don’t.fall while trying to get into their plot which is 8x10ft
I have a raised veggie tomatoe and peas and peppers planted in straw bales garden..I would be more then happy to send you pictures.If you are interested I have had several people stop by just to see it..It is 2 feet off the ground has a wire bottom..we have had pocket gophers here and they have a healthy appeite for things in the ground..they have yet learned to climb the legs on our garden box..LOL
I have a raised bed for two reasons, to disguise a well and easy on the back! Very easy to maintain as I don’t get as many weeds. I have a bad back and I love it!!
I definitely agree there are advantages and disadvantages to raised beds. I have raised beds but thankfully it doesn’t get to cold here during the winter.
Gwill Jones says
Do you have a facility whereby people who reply can add photographs?
We were fortunate to find a property with a sturdy 60-foot greenhouse. It had been abandoned for almost 3 years and the wooden raised bed frames were all rotted out. We replaced them with 8×16″ cinderblock pavers on edge, creating a grid of 9 beds. Used the same pavers with weed mat underneath for the pathways between.
I like the height and the ability to move large potted plants on rollers and keep the paths swept/hosed down (unlike gravel, which also tends to scatter where it’s not wanted.) So far, no trouble with drainage. Also the cinderblock doesn’t harbor insects and the light color maybe keeps roots a bit cooler during sunniest days.
Here’s another reason for raised beds – gophers. They will eat just about any tuberous roots they find, and if you build a raised bed, you can cover the bottom with hardware cloth.
Every time we try to dig, our zone 6 NH yard is full of huge tree roots and large rocks. So last year we created a loam berm with plenty of black mulch on the border of our neighbor’s yard, & planted 3 hollies that we hoped would eventually become a screen between properties. By spring the normally hearty hollies were dead from high snow & winter winds, & the soil from the berm had slid 2 ft into the neighbor’s yard from frost heaves. We also had 3 other earth mounds where we planted single saplings – 2 of the 3 saplings died & the 3rd won’t support itself upright even after 14 months. The one sapling we planted directly into the yard is thriving. We have learned our lesson & removed all the earth mounds in our yard. We’ll deal with digging through the roots & rocks instead.
I live in northwestern Utah just above the Great Salt Lake. Our soil is heavy clay and very alkaline. I made my raised beds out of old waterbed frames and made my own soil out of peat moss, sand and vermiculite. I have been able to grow most everything I wanted. I even dug out my flower beds by the house and changed the soil there too. I have used my raised beds for nearly 14 yeas with wonderful success. It has worked the best for where I live. It was a lot less cost to build the raised beds then add to the existing soil to fix the heavy clay.
Pinky from Moose Hollow Farm says
We have several raised beds using felled trees from our forests. For several reasons. One it was a new house location and the surrounding ground was mostly gravel from the building the very expensive raise mound septic system. This way we could add fresh compost, manure, and lime.
Another is that even a slight raise in height makes it easier on the back to work the land.
Still another is that we have a very high water table (no root cellar for us). We often get mini ponds around the house. You only have to dig down 2 feet to hit water. So the raised bed helps with drainage.
We use the trees that are around our property so they are free (our favorite price). From our raised beds we are able to grow a sizeable amount of food that we preserve for winter eating. We have a well stocked pantry and freezer and hope that after stocking the pantry with some basics like flour, sugar, and salt; that we will only need to shop for milk butter and eggs this winter. If we still had chickens we’d have the eggs. Next year we hope to get more chickens, raise another hog, maybe even get a milk goat or two.
Irene Moore says
I have azalea and gardenia bushes planted under my large pine trees in a raised bed,two of the azaleas and two of the gardenia bushes have died this summer.
I have a sprinkler system but I wonder if they did not get enough water?????
I have raised vegetable beds and they do very well,no more flat beds,too hard to weed.
Irene, the only way to know for sure is check the soil in the beds. You can buy a moisture meter or just stick your fingers in the soil.
Pat Rupchock says
While reading this I saw your Free Gardener’s Secret Handbook. I clicked on it to get “free instant access” and nothing comes up. Please help!
If that’s not working you can get a copy at http://freeplants.com
my vegetable and perennial beds are raised by mounding good soil, compost and leaf mulch as I live in a sand pit and wouldn’t be able to grow much without the benefit of raised beds. My neighbour has beds built of wood that are 3 feet high. She has trouble keeping all but the toughest perennials alive in those beds during out Zone 4 Canada winters. They are great for annuals and vegetables and save her back.
I too have built a 4ftx4ft and a 4ftx8ft, both 18″ deep, on legs,
finishing at 36″ above ground. Filled with lasagna compost for 1.5 years,and now I have some GREAT soil. Beans,Potatoes,Squash all love that organic goodness. Layers compost. leaves,grass, shredded paper, cow manure, all my Veggie scraps, and ground eggshells.
I have been a long time reader of Mike’s wonderful garden information. But I never received the free book I was promised. I keep hearing about certain parts of it and think it would be nice to have.
The Gardeners Secret Handbook is a digital publication, you can get a copy at http://freeplants.com
Lynn Snyder says
If you use a no-till gardening technique to improve and preserve the soil structure, raised beds that are constructed to allow you to reach all parts of bed without stepping on it, provide clear boundaries.
Gwill Jones says
There is an advantage to raised beds which hasn’t been mentioned recently.
I cultivate the beds from the surrounding paths and do not need to tread on the soil.
This leaves the soil a lot looser and allows air to get in.
Because I get a lot of weeds I need to dig out weeds frequently.
Gwill Jones says
I have very slightly raised bed for vegetables. I have not noticed any problems with frost or with drying out. My water comes from a well in the garden via 21 taps around the garden, so I do not have any problems with watering.
My flower borders are all raised beds two bricks high, except for the rose bed which is raised four bricks high, with a smaller bed around it which is 2 bricks high.
I have one raised border about 4 feet high. There are two reasons for this. I had a waste piece of ground on a slope and I had a lot of soil to get rid of. I built this raised bed for vegetables this year, so I haven’t had a chance to see what happens in the winter. It faces south east and gets the sun on the wall in the morning. I envisage the wall and soil absorbing heat in the morning and hopefully retaining a lot of the heat for later in the day.
I will let you know what happens in the spring.
I have pure sand for soil which is also very acidic. It’s great for pine trees and blueberries. But for the regular garden I went with raised beds. I used untreated 3×8’s for the vegetable garden and 3×12’s for the raspberry bed. So far so good but I do worry after reading the article that my raspberry plants will dry out too much.
I also like the look of raised beds, our place in the woods looks a little haphazard and the beds give it some structure. Hopefully everything will Winter well here in Wisconsin, I have access to some super cheap mulch so I will probably mulch in the entire bed to create some warmth.
Pat Likins says
Our soil is very alkaline and seems loaded with fungus. I have had trouble with shrubs until I made a raised bed following your instructions, a small one but I relocated three dwarf false cypress (that I had almost lost in their former location) and that I love for the golden color; and a dwarf Weigela (that was not doing well before) which has a lovely spring bloom. They thrive there!
My garden is very small and the best areas for growing are paved over (grrrrr) So I grow a huge amount of flowers, shrubs, small trees and veggies in pots. I can more than double my growing area with raised beds, cant wait to get started now that I’ve been ‘Mike inspired’
Gus Christofield says
The older I get the harder it is for me to get down closer to the ground. With the raised beds (30″ high 4′ wide 2x6x8′,10′ or 12′ long) I am able to enjoy working in the garden with ease and very little pain. I can control the weeds better and even put up a low tunnel for extending the growing season. I do not have to amend the red clay we have in Virginia. I just love to piddle in the garden at 67 and will continue to do so as long as God allows.
Thanks Mike for all you do in helping others…God bless you.
Mike, Your blog is great. Thanks for everything you do for us. I noticed your beds have no flowers, why no perennials? Just wondering.;)
That’s a good question! I do have perennials in my beds, but not as many as I’d like. I have so many other plants in the beds not sure if I have the room.
carolyn schwartz says
I have all raised beds for my veggie garden and I really like it. But they do dry out faster then just a normal garden would,so it takes more consistent watering but with our hot Mo. weather I think they are a lot easier to take care of.! And I just Love them!!
Don Paul says
I have been experimenting with Bentonite(you can purchase a bag at Farmers
Co op for around $10) because I have soil issues. I have been mixing it in my flower containers towards the bottom(my own potting mix mixture.. sand..peat moss..topsoil that comes in bags(if that’s what you call it now for the last 13 years) and it seems to hold moister very well and I do not have to water that often. That being said try making a small area 20″ x 20″ \3 0f them with different mixes with bentonite and document your results before and after like a didn’t do(I guessed). From here on in I will document all my experiments and I planted different plants in my Planet Mars soil and gotten good results.
NY Permaculture Gardener says
Depends what is in your raised bed. Hugelkutlture – an old European gardening technique – beds thrive and produce LOTS of excellent produce with greater gardening ease
Ha! I’d been using hugelkulture practices for years before I learned it was a specific technique – and here I thought I was really clever! 😀 I live in a semi-arid area of central/East Washington state; my soil is horrible – a very few inches down, several feet of hardpan lies – really difficult to have thriving vegetation. I started burying logs & windfall, knowing they’d rot & produce lovely humus, and have not been disappointed. 25 years in the making & still adding to it…
Janette Brungardt says
I would like to know what is the variety of the weeping willow in the first picture. Do you trim it or is it naturally even on the bottom?
Janette, Golden Curls Willow. I trim it from the bottom up so it doesn’t block the sidewalk and so we can mow under it and swing. https://mikesbackyardnursery.com/2012/03/golden-curls-willow/
chris adkins says
ok, so I’m going to build a raised flower box out in my moms garden, (about 18 inches, to 2 ft high). I’d like to plant some old flower bulbs in it so they’ll come back in the future. Now would being off the ground that high mess them up?
Thanks, -chris in cardington, ohio
Chris, You should be fine with the bulbs.
George Clarke says
Here in the East of the UK we can get morning frost from October to March.
Wouldn`t a Bunker such as yours form a “Frost Pocket” to which the frost would roll and then remain for a while?
George, my bunker is enclosed with an insulated cover. Frost can’t get in and even in the teens if doesn’t freeze inside.
Here in the UK I live next to the river Thames it’s very important for me to have raised flower and veg beds because during the winter we can be under 2 – 3 feet of water
I have a large raised vegetable and fruit garden (40 boxes 4ft by 4ft by 1ft each). I live in the Midwest in an urban environment. Although I enjoy the benefits of the raised garden, I have noticed that, due to the excessive heat and drought conditions of the last two years, that the planters require more frequent watering than the surrounding soil and the plants sometimes seem to suffer from the higher root temperatures that they experience from being elevated above the surrounding insulating soil. Other than the heat problem, the plants seem to do very well.